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emPOWERingOn Saturday 22 March 2014, a group of people gathered at the Bankstown District Uniting Church for a conference on emPOWERing organised by the Christ and Cultures Gathering. Initially the conference was on power, but the organising team realised that the term power could also have negative connotations and decided to name it emPOWERing. The capitalisation of power in the word says that we will be talking about power, but that the practice of power should not stop there, but move to empowering others, especially the marginalised who have lost their voice.

There was a diversity of cultures present at the conference including Tamil, Lebanese, Armenian, some Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal, Anglo and Koreans.

The day started with singing The Power of Your Love and a prayer. The Rev. Dr. Clive Pearson’s opening speech was Power and Persuasion, where he dealt with the consensus model that the Uniting Church uses, and said, “For a proper working of a pneumatic consensus the process needs to be respected and rightly observed, for the Spirit has a particular nature and task.” He tackled the use and sometimes abuse of power in the decision making process. He ended his speech by saying “Our power, theoretically, lies in a pneumatocracy where in and through the Spirit we seek to confess the Christ who constitutes, rules and renews the church and whose sufferings we are called to share.”

After a short break, The Rev. Dr. Tony Floyd presented the intended power dynamics in the Uniting Church. Many of those attending realised the differences in intentions and the practice. One of these differences was in the use of the orange and blue cards at meetings. Dr. Floyd mentioned that those cards were intended to let the speaker know what the people were thinking: whether they agreed with the idea or not, whether they have understood and heard enough to make a decision. The cards were never intended to replace the process of raising hands to vote. Today, there is a possibility of having consensus with only one orange card if there are no blue cards.

After a short question and answer session with Dr. Floyd, The Rev. Dr. John Jegasothy presented the situation of the asylum seekers that come to Australia the hardships they go through in detention centres in Australia, and their situation after they are released into the community. He presented the disempowered refugees who come to Australia to have a safer life, but are disempowered again because of the system. He also presented how the church is helping to empower them, and give them support in different ways.

Dr. Jegasothy’s session was followed by a long session of Q&A, which made the caterer and her son impatient. Discussion continued over a Lebanese-Armenian lunch, which led to the group discussions on some of the issues we see in our own context. The group I was in discussed the word power in different languages. We found out that in Korean, Armenian, Niueian and Arabic the words used actually mean physical strength when referring to human beings and might when talking about God. Even though we understood what was meant by the term power, we were unable to express it in our own language.

The day ended with a final keynote speech from Ms. Tina Rendell-Thornton who gave six keys to empowerment from her experience working in the Uniting Church. “The first key”, she said, “to empowerment is you!” your own identity. The second key is relationship. “Empowering is all about relationships!” The third key is opportunity. “We need to create opportunities for people to be empowered.” The fourth key is language. “How language is used leads to shared knowledge or a sense of elitism.” The fifth key is skills. “There are a range of skills that need to be developed to participate and have a voice in the systems developed by the community, church and workplaces. Some skills are learnt by access to education, some skills are learnt by experience and being given the opportunity.” The sixth key is values. “Empowerment needs a purpose and our values shape that purpose.” After presenting her six keys to empowerment, Ms. Rendell-Thornton invited the group to discuss the keys.

As the day came to a close, participants were able to see some of the power dynamics at play in the church and being equipped with the tools to empowering, were able to see a hope for the future where the of minorities and the marginalised could empowered to make their voice heard to enrich the diversity of the church and the quality of experience and discussion.

The following list contains the full transcript of the speeches and the readings that were made available:

Program of the day

Welcome, worship, housekeeping
mapping a Christian theology of power
morning tea
Keynote speech – Tony Floyd
questions and discussion
Keynote speech – John Jegasothy
questions and discussion
emPowering – small group discussion
Keynote speech – Tina Rendell
questions and discussion